Tak­ing old school ap­proach to old books

Nar­cissa Sun, 21, a stu­dent from China at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois, learns the spe­cial­ized craft of re­pair­ing frag­ile books

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - In New York


Nar­cissa Sun is some­thing of a throw­back. She en­joys knit­ting and works in a li­brary. And her job — mend­ing old books at a ma­jor Amer­i­can univer­sity li­brary — lit­er­ally goes back in time.

The re­pair of old books has been a del­i­cate is­sue for li­brary sys­tems that have thou­sands of aged mas­ter­pieces among their stacks. A li­brar­ian needs not only enough pa­tience to take care of the frag­ile books, but the pa­tience and pas­sion to spend hours in the li­brary day in and day out.

Sun works at the cam­pus li­brary sys­tem of the Univer­sity of Illi­nois at Ur­banaCham­paign, one of the largest public aca­demic col­lec­tions in the world. Among univer­si­ties in North Amer­ica, it has the sec­ond-largest col­lec­tion of books, af­ter Har­vard Univer­sity. The univer­sity has more than 20 de­part­men­tal li­braries and di­vi­sions hold­ing more than 24 mil­lion ti­tles, in­clud­ing more than 12 mil­lion print vol­umes.

Sun, 21, re­cently fin­ished her third year at the univer­sity and has been work­ing at the Oak Street Li­brary Fa­cil­ity, one of the main li­braries in the sys­tem, for the past year. A cin­ema stud­ies ma­jor, Sun said it was a co­in­ci­dence that she be­came a li­brar­ian.

“Last year, when I was con­sid­er­ing a part-time job in my third year, the li­brary hap­pened to have an open po­si­tion,” she told China Daily. “I was think­ing, ‘ Why can’t I just take a try?’ so I ap­plied for the in­ter­view at the li­brary.”

The in­ter­view was not easy, said Sun, as she had to take sev­eral “odd” quizzes, in­clud­ing rec­og­niz­ing the cor­rect di­rec­tion of white pa­per, test­ing her slic­ing abil­ity with a knife, and mak­ing a box with pa­per.

Thanks to her knowl­edge of cre­at­ing tra­di­tional Chi­nese paint­ings, Sun was able to han­dle sen­si­tive, thin pa­per well, and she was ac­cepted as a li­brar­ian to work with the gen­eral col­lec­tions in the li­brary.

At first, the tasks were dif­fi­cult and com­pli­cated, but Sun said she had a car­ing su­per­vi­sor who taught her how to use a scalpel and other tools to re­pair old hard­cover books and frag­ile pages. Some­times, a book that she had mended needed to be re­worked at the su­per­vi­sor’s re­quest.

Books at the Oak Street Li­brary Fa­cil­ity are di­vided into gen­eral and spe­cial col­lec­tions. The books in the gen­eral col­lec­tion can be bor­rowed by the public af­ter re­pairs by the li­brar­ian. To mend a gen­eral col­lec­tion book, a li­brar­ian usu­ally spends 15 min­utes to two hours on it, depend­ing on the ex­tent of dam­age. And af­ter one night of stov­ing, the books are re­turned to the stacks.

How­ever, for the spe­cial col­lec­tions, the re­pair time takes up to two hours. Sun is work­ing with the gen­eral col­lec­tion’s old cov­ers, or spines. She said she is look­ing for­ward to re­pair­ing older books.

Sun works in the li­brary 10 hours a week, and usu­ally more than two hours at a sit­ting.

“I re­ally en­joy re­pair­ing old books, es­pe­cially those which were heav­ily dam­aged,” Sun said. “I feel a great achieve­ment when an old book looks good af­ter hours of work from my hands.”

Born Sun Weina in Zhen­jiang, a small city in Jiangsu province on the east coast of China, Sun came to the United States at 18 to at­tend the univer­sity. She said that liv­ing in Amer­ica on her own has helped her make more friends and grow.

She also said she doesn’t feel as home­sick for­eign stu­dents might.

“One of the rea­sons is my life is en­riched af­ter I took the job as a li­brar­ian,” she said. “One will not feel home­sick when sur­rounded by in­ter­est­ing jobs and friends.”

Sun posted about her ex­pe­ri­ence on Chi­nese so­cial net­works, and sud­denly it be­came a trend­ing topic. On WeChat and Salon­with.com, as other her age more than 20,000 read about Sun’s work and left more than 100 com­ments. Some of them had just learned about work­ing in a li­brary and re­quested more pic­tures of her workspace.

A li­brar­ian job in China is usu­ally a low-pay­ing one. Sun said she hopes that more Chi­nese peo­ple, es­pe­cially young­sters, can be in­tro­duced to the job.



old books does not only mean a lot to the li­brary, but to the whole coun­try as well,” she said.

One ne­ti­zen shared those sen­ti­ments: “Although I haven’t thought out any ques­tions, I still wanna click the LIKE but­ton for Sun. Af­ter all, [those] who made hu­man history and cul­ture pass from gen­er­a­tions to gen­er­a­tions [are] those who read books and trea­sure books.”


Nar­cissa Sun stands in front of the high book stacks at the Oak Street Li­brary Fa­cil­ity at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois in Ur­bana-Champaign.

The stu­dio

where old books are re­paired at the Oak Street Li­brary Fa­cil­ity at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois.

The tools that Nar­cissa Sun uses to re­pair old books.

A desk is ded­i­cated for work­ing on spe­cial col­lec­tions.

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